It's that time in October where it gets colder and the days get darker, which only calls for one thing: to curl up with a good book. And what could be a better time than this to read an unsettling, gothic horror? American novelist Ray Bradbury first published his chilling story The October Game all the way back in 1948 — 75 years ago. A lot may have evolved since then, but readers' insatiable need to be scared has remained timeless.
But what did our writers think of this unnerving, gory classic? Read on, if you dare...
I like reading, but consistently turning 30 pages a night when my mind demands flashy, digital stimuli, is something I struggle with when trying to quietly read for an hour before bed. I find a good book has a higher bar to clear than an equally good film—I will happily watch a middling drama about junkie criminals swearing for 2 hours but unless a book is drowning my brain in serotonin, finishing it within weeks (more often months) feels like a real task. I thank the guy who invented audiobooks, which have kept me slightly more cultured.
That being said, I love reading short stories. Concise, to the point and sometimes experimental, I’ll happily read several short stories in a night, even if it means enduring the discomfort of reading from a pdf. In my opinion, horror really suits the short story structure by using the majority of the writing to elicit extended dread, followed by one swift and twisted punchline. Some of my favourites like Guts by Chuck Palahniuk or Leg of Lamb by Roald Dahl use this punchline style reveal, whereas something like The Moon Bog by H.P Lovecraft uses verbose descriptions of the setting to create a detailed sense of tension and atmosphere. Ray Bradbury’s The October Game is cut from a similar cloth.
This story is unbelievably nasty (despite lacking any true reveal) and this all stems from our narrator, Mitch — a father and husband (begrudgingly) and a devil-may-care psychopath. The story features traits of a horror story that are unmistakably Americana. Guns, marriages on a knife edge, sugar and Halloween. There’s just something off about a picture perfect American suburbia — white washed fences and bright green grass atop a powder keg of underlying tension below the surface (see the opening to Blue Velvet for a freaky, unmatched metaphor). I felt the Narrator embodies this, the way he keeps to himself, crying and bottling his emotions, building his scathing resentment towards his wife, Louise, all while appearing to be an engaged and caring father to his daughter.
I really love how the story subverts expectations with the gun at the beginning. Based on the Chekov’s Gun principle – which teaches us that every element in a narrative must be necessary – we expect Mitch to make use of the weapon by the end of the story. Reading again, I got the impression Bradbury is using Chekov’s Gun to tease the audience with the promise of something horrible and then finds a way to turn the shock value up even further. Mitch shutting the gun away in the drawer is great foreshadowing, almost like Bradbury is physically locking Chekov’s Gun out of the story.
The final rush of tension Bradbury creates is perfect. Three quarters in, when the entrails are being handed out and Louise can’t find their daughter, an awful, awful thought is planted in your head. That thought expands to the point where a written resolution isn’t important—you already know every sickening, dripping detail of the scene.
I can’t think of a better way to cosily ease yourself into Halloween than starting out with some short stories like The October Game. I mentioned before that the atmosphere in which you read in can make or break the experience, especially if there’s a device pinging you notifications every few minutes.
If you think reading can be hard work, then I recommend a short horror story before bed, a single lit candle and the 1 Hour of H.P. Lovecraft Music YouTube playlist on in the background.
If you can’t sleep, don’t worry, there’s always November.
My dad is always going on about how Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest horror writers of his time, if not one of the greatest writers in general of all time. Since I love to argue with my father about most things, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into a Ray Bradbury short just so I could prove him wrong.
Well, while The October Game wasn’t the massive disappointment I had hoped it would be, it definitely did not wow me like I would expect a short would from ‘one of the greatest horror writers of all time’. It was suspenseful and had the sinister vibe one would want from a Halloween tale, but it just felt a little…predictable.
It must be recognized that writing a good short horror is particularly difficult, what with the limited time to set the scene and build the suspense, and it has to be said that he did do that well. I could practically smell the scene he built and hear the children laughing in the distance. He immediately established the main subject of our story as the source of evil that would cause the main climax, and personally I think that’s a brave way of writing – giving away your bad guy from the get-go doesn’t leave much room for letting the imagination wander and contributing to the terror of it all.
Having said that thought, I did enjoy this aspect. It caused me as the reader to focus on the other terrifying question when it comes to horror: ‘what’s he gonna do?’ Up until this point, I was kind of hooked. Bradbury had drawn me in, and the tension was palpable. And then all of a sudden, I was bored.
Where it all fell flat for me was on the final page. The reader is already about two-thirds of the way through and waiting for that final climax to occur. The moment a child describes how a game is played gives away the entire ending. At that point it’s almost crystal clear what is about to happen. I prefer my horror with a little bit more shock value. The entire final page is dedicated to building to this horrific act that you already know is coming, so by the time you’re at the end of the story, it’s almost as if you want to say ‘ok…is that it?’ I just expected more.
Now don’t get me wrong, the final horror is pretty gruesome and the idea is truly terrifying, but I’m just not sure I liked the way it was written. Maybe I'm desensitized from watching too many horror films, or maybe I have high expectations from Ray — what with him being one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century — but The October Game just wasn’t that great for me.
I enjoyed reading The October Game for its scene setting and suspense building value, but I wouldn’t say it’s going to stick with me for a while. I don’t think I’d recommend it as something a horror lover needs to read. Maybe those who already are Ray Bradbury fans would enjoy it way more than I did, but he really didn’t blow me away like I would have expected.
You can read The October Game online (just give it a search on Google).
Edited by Hamilton Brown